Making a Movement
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
There was bright sunshine warming the cool air as thousands of people gathered in the streets, chanting and waving, singing and marching. They were there because they wanted change to come, because they’d been invited to gather to make a statement with their very presence. That was the scene more than 2000 years ago in the streets of Jerusalem, the day we remember today.
Welcome to the start of Holy Week, the very beginning of a whole week of remembering events that make up the foundation of our faith. One of the unique characteristics of Christian faith is our constant invitation to become part of a story, the story of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth and the story of God’s ongoing love for the whole world. This week we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we begin today, as our children have already reminded us, with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We know, of course, that this was more than a parade. It was really a protest—a staged response to the Roman Emperor Pontus Pilate entering Jerusalem from the West, a huge military parade put on for the purpose of showing military might and dominance. The story we heard this morning happened on the other side of town, the streets filled with people chanting “Hosanna! Save us!,” as Jesus rode in on a donkey. The people in the streets at that parade were hoping that Jesus would be the one to finally release them from the oppression of Rome, from the crippling societal conditions under which they were living. You know the story well.
During this whole season of Lent we’ve been making our way through the gospel of Mark, hearing about how Jesus is at every turn changing the rules for what it means to be human in this world. Mark’s gospel, as I’ve told you over and over this season, is very spare on the details of these stories. Considered by many scholars to be the earliest gospel written, Mark’s writer did not sit down with the intent of meandering through his memories of life with Jesus; rather he pieced together various accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in a book that was intended from its first to depict the urgency, the life and death quality, the radically uncomfortable nature of Jesus’ message. Mark gospel is perhaps the most rough in terms of style and literary quality; his sentences are short and he uses the word “immediately” over and over again. In fact, Mark leaves out so many details of the story that our lectionary—the assigned passages for each week—has taken us some weeks to some of the other gospel writers in order to fill in the details of the story.
Today, however, Mark’s account of events is completely out of character. Recall the gospel passage we just heard. It’s the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the big parade we celebrate every year at the beginning of Holy Week. But today’s passage—eleven verses from Mark chapter eleven—only tells about Jesus’ actual entry in the very last verse of the passage. The other verses are all devoted…to the details.
The passage begins with Jesus and his disciples approaching Jerusalem from the eastern side of the city. Recall that the city was full of people getting ready for Passover, so Jesus and his disciples would have been among many on their way into the city. As they approached the Mount of Olives, Mark begins to tell us in detail the instructions that Jesus gives his disciples: go into the village ahead of us. You will find the colt of a donkey tied there. Untie it and bring it to me. If anyone asks you why you are untying it, tell them the Lord needs it and we will bring it back to you immediately.
After Jesus gives these detailed instructions to his disciples, Mark tells us what happens—exactly as Jesus said it would—repeating all the details again: disciples go into the village; colt of a donkey tied to near a door; disciples untie it; people ask what they’re doing; they say Jesus needs it and they’ll bring it back shortly; they get the donkey. Mark then goes into several more verses of detail, telling us how the disciples prepared for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, laying their cloaks on the donkey, lining the streets with their cloaks, too, along with leafy branches cut from the fields, and leading the crowds in chants of “Hosanna!” “Save us!” as Jesus rode into the city. And after his very short description of the actual gathering in the street that day, Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples pack everything up and head back out of Jerusalem, back to the work of preaching and organizing the people in the villages around city.
That’s a lot of detail for Mark, and it’s curious that he chooses to tell the story this way. I have to wonder if maybe that’s the point. Maybe Mark wanted us to sit up and take notice, to realize as we stand on the edge of this week filled with dramatic events, that there are many things that have to happen behind the scenes for a protest to become substantive change, for a moment to become a movement. Living in the way of Jesus is more than just showing up every once in awhile; true transformation takes hard work, attending to the details, showing up not just once but again and again and again until change, within and without, begins to take hold.
It’s impossible to read the story of Palm Sunday this morning, of course, and not think about what happened in our city and in cities across the country just yesterday. Like 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, people in our country seem to be longing for change, and many Americans were determined to make a statement with their presence in the streets. You answered a call to show up—a large group of Riversiders turned out for the March for Our Lives, people of faith telling the world that gun violence in our country has to end, that we need better laws to protect vulnerable communities from the evil of gun violence in the classroom and in our streets and even in our backyards.
I myself spent most of Friday afternoon painstakingly working on my sign for the protest—a huge feat since I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. I did that because I, too, have been caught up in the energy sweeping our country especially since the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. As you know, these efforts are led by young people who are tired of waiting for adults to make change and deciding instead to take things into their own hands. But as I sat at my dining room table working on my protest sign, getting everything ready to show up early Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but think of something DeRay McKesson said when he was here at Riverside in February. He looked out over this nave, packed with well-meaning people who showed up to talk about racism in our country, and he said something like: “You all are so good at making protest signs—beautiful signs that you bring out into the streets with the crowds. You show up for the protests. But when it comes to doing the hard work of changing the systems that cause injustice—when it comes to making changes that impact your own comfort and privilege—you don’t go there.”
Parkland students and other young activists who organized the March for Our Lives are not focused solely on one day of people flooding the streets of every city in America. They are focused instead on real, substantive change, and that change is found in the hard work of shifting laws and systems, of moving an entire culture toward a new way of seeing the world. This is happening, not just with one day of protesting in the streets, but with countless hours of preparation, with massive efforts to register new voters, with campaigns like Parents Promise to Kids—kids who are too young to vote getting their parents to pledge only to vote for legislators who prioritize the safety of children over guns.
I wonder if Mark took painstaking detail to tell the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the purpose of reminding us that there is so much more than a protest in the streets that has to happen for a movement to gain traction, for true change to really take hold. Change will come—and not because of one beautiful Saturday of protesting in the streets. Change will come through the day in, day out work we do, work that is difficult and tedious, uncomfortable and hard. It takes preparation and commitment, follow through and tenacity, the dedication of our whole lives to the work of living the gospel.
We’re standing now on the edge of Holy Week, gathered with Jesus and the disciples and many people in Jerusalem at a parade, a protest, really. The sun is shining and the energy in the air is palpable. Our children are singing and waving their palms, we feel a sense of possibility for all that we can be and do together. But for Jesus and his disciples, getting here has been difficult—years of preaching and teaching, sacrifice, hard work, planning, organization. For all of them, and for us, moving past today into the week ahead is going to be even harder, requiring tenacity and commitment many of them could not summon.
For us, following Jesus from this moment full of optimism and possibility, all the way to the cross…well, that is going to require making change that causes us discomfort. We will have to go to places that hurt, confront realities that make us uneasy, look at ourselves with attention to the ways in which we fail. I wonder if we will have the courage that it takes to walk with Jesus through this whole week, to see the change through to the end—past the colorful protest signs and the enthusiasm of the crowd and the excitement of an idea whose time has come?
Jesus ended up on a cross alone, all of the friends who joined him in the streets only one week before having left, deserting him. They did not learn the lesson Jesus had been trying to teach them—that real change—in our lives and in our world—takes painstaking attention to the details, to the work that happens behind the scenes and even after a moment like the one they had in the streets of Jerusalem that day. It’s the hard work of making a movement, of preparing to live into what we cannot see, hearts filled with faith that God will be with us no matter what we face ahead of us.
As we begin the journey into Holy Week today, we’re being invited to join the parade, the protest calling for our world to change. But we can’t pack up our protest signs and stop there. Jesus invites us to join him in living a gospel that will take our whole lives, every moment, every day, dedicated to ushering in a new reality, to making a movement. May we find the courage we need to keep showing up.